Am I my brother’s keeper?
By Owen Ronalds
A lot of things about religion from the United States can be annoying. They have given us some great stuff too, but one of the things they are generally pretty bad at is an intelligent biblical literacy. This seems quite ironic given so many religious people in the USA claim the bible to be the literal truth. It may help explain their propensity to argue with each other about what is the truth in this literal truth. Or maybe that part is down to God being a poor communicator.
One of the most irritating and dangerous ideas in much religion is the over-developed sense of responsibility many people feel for others. I am not talking here about concern for your neighbour in a helpful way. The kind of overdeveloped sense of responsibility I am talking about is where some Christians assume responsibility for others’ morality, such as in debates about homosexuality, abortion and pre-marital sex. No doubt there are other issues too, but they are rarely ones of real significance where some might say Jesus had some clear teaching like the use of money and power.
There will always be areas where people will disagree about where morality needs to become law. However I think it is safe to say that there is an extreme in some kinds of Islam and conservative US Christianity which is obvious to all as a threat to universally-declared human rights. It overflows into current US popular opinion and foreign policy in the way they are prepared to take unilateral action for the good of others whether the others want it or not! To much of the rest of the world it appears more like a poorly-rationalised excuse for preserving their own self-interest without regard to the harm it does others or even themselves in the long term. This is where poor literacy is dangerous in forming part of a national sense of identity and purpose.
I have often felt that the notion of ’my brother’s keeper’ has been influential in the USA. A liberal like Bishop Spong mentioned it after the Boxing Day tsunami and just the other day I was watching an old US television show where the crusty star quoted the question from Genesis to another character: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He then answered himself in the affirmative. No wonder so much of their theology is so screwed up! The answer in Genesis was actually ’yes’, but that is only because Cain took ultimate responsibility for Abel’s life and murdered him. The misunderstanding seems to come about because Cain lied about murder and asked the question in order to infer that he did not know where his brother was. So part of Cain’s lie was to infer the answer to ’Am I my brother’s keeper?’ was no. The answer should be ’no’, but Cain lied by inference as he had committed murder. He knew exactly where Abel was!
Whenever we assume responsibility for another adult we take something from them. It does not need to be murder but it can end up there. What does being a ’keeper’ mean? Jail keeper? Animal keeper? I won’t be my brother’s keeper. On occasions of real and imminent danger this might be necessary but these are rare. Perhaps it is not an accident that this is an almost universal U.S. misunderstanding. If anything sits in the DNA of American history it is violence and murder. The U.S. still has a murder rate higher than any comparable country and they continue to quote the original murderer of scripture.